The Book of Ruth Explained
The Meaning of the Book of Ruth & Its Historical Background
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
What is the Book of Ruth About?
A Story 30 Generations In The Making
On Shavuot, we celebrate one of the loftiest spiritual experiences in Jewish history – the giving of the Torah – and to commemorate this day, we read Megillat Ruth. But why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot? Is it because the story of Ruth takes place during the harvest season, and so does Shavuot? That doesn't sound like a great reason. Is it because Ruth shows great faith in God, and we're meant to do the same, especially on Shavuot? Perhaps, except that the part about Ruth's devotion to God is mostly in the first chapter; does it really ring true to say "That's what the Book of Ruth is all about"?
Ruth's story just seems rather... mundane, rather domesticated, when compared to the awe inspiring miracle of receiving the Torah. It has its charming moments, no doubt — but when you step back and consider its four chapters, it doesn’t really seem like such a spectacular tale.
There’s this bit about the famine, the collecting of grain, Ruth’s bumpy courtship with Boaz, the discussion about redemption at the city gates… It’s like “A Day in the Life of Beit Lechem (Bethlehem).” Of course, we're told that King David ultimately descends from this union between Ruth and Boaz, so it seems that something special happened here… but what was so marvelous about it? And why should this seemingly humdrum book have been chosen to celebrate our most lofty national experience?
Upon closer inspection, it turns out that the Book of Ruth — and the union between Ruth and Boaz, in particular — is anything but mundane, anything but humdrum. It’s just that in order to understand the Book of Ruth, you have to bend your ear to the Torah’s hints and clues… clues that point back to one of the earliest stories in the Torah. There's an incredible spiritual meaning to be found in the connections between the Book of Ruth and God's promise to Abraham, and an astounding link between the characteristics of Ruth and that of her ancestor (yes, you read that right) Abraham. Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores the hidden layers in this story, and see the Book of Ruth for what it is: a grand narrative that cuts to the very core of our identity as a nation, providing a life-sized model of how God wants His chosen people to act in the world.
Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and today I would like to talk to you about the holiday of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth.
Why Do We Read the Story of Ruth on Shavuot?The holiday of Shavuot, as holidays go, is a very grand holiday. We associate it with an event no less magnificent, than the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. And yet the book that we read on this holiday, the Book of Ruth, by comparison, seems very pedestrian; it seems to talk about small stuff, not big stuff. It's the story of a courtship between Ruth, and ultimately a man named Boaz.
Ruth originally comes from Moabite stock, she is a convert, and she ends marrying Boaz. And it's a very nice story, a very charming story, a kind of rags to spiritual riches story perhaps, of this girl who marries Boaz and ends up having a great grandchild by the name of David, who became King David, and certainly the linage that emerges from Boaz and Ruth suggests that there is something grand going on here.
But if you look at the Book itself, it doesn't look like a very spectacular book; nothing really happens. It almost seems just like a day in the life of Bet Lehem.
Summarizing the Story of Megillat RuthThe story begins with a man by the name of Elimelech. Elimelech has two children, Machlon and Kilyon. The names Machlon and Kilyon by the way are very strange names; Machlon means sickness, Kilyon means destruction. I mean, what strange names to name your kids; "come here little Sickness, come here little Destruction". But look these are the names.
They head off from Bet Lehem where they were born, and they go with their father and mother Elimelech and Naomi, they go to the neighboring land of Moab. And in Moab, Elimelech dies and, Machlon and Kilyon marry Moabites girls; one of them is Ruth and the other one is Orpah. And then Machlon and Kilyon died, and then all that is left is Naomi, the widow of Elimelech, and these two daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah, and Naomi decides that she is going back to Bet Lehem; they had left because of famine, and now there is food again in Bet Lehem. And Orpah and Ruth want to accompany her and she dissuades them. And eventually Orpah turns back, but Ruth doesn't turn back; she gives that famous speech, "Whither thou goest, I will go." And Ruth sticks with Naomi and comes back to Bet Lehem; and there, they are poor, they are nobodies and everyone kinds of shuns them.
But eventually, Ruth starts collecting grains in fields. According to Torah law, the poor are allowed to collect grains after the harvesters have gone through the fields, and she ends up collecting grains in the field of this man by the name of Boaz who apparently seems related to her and eventually she ends up marrying Boaz.
Now their courtship is a slightly bumpy road. Initially Boaz seems to see Ruth as a good person, but it doesn't seem like the two will marry. But then Ruth approaches Boaz in the middle of the night and basically propositions marriage to him. He accepts, and then the final verses of the Book indicate that their great grandchild ends up being King David himself.
So if you look at it, the fact that King David comes from this union, seems to indicate that something special is going on in this Book. But what was so marvelous about what happened here? Shavuot, giving the Torah, that's clearly a big deal; what's the big deal in the Book of Ruth?
What Is the Book of Ruth All About?So I would like to suggest a theory to you. Let's think about Ruth as she is portrayed in the Book of Ruth. So let's play my favorite game, 'Where have we heard all of this before?' What other famous person in the Torah does Ruth compares to?
First of all, Ruth is not born a Jew, she converts; she comes into the people later. Ruth is known for her kindness; Boaz twice speaks of her kindness. The first time he says, "I heard about what you've done for your mother-in-law, after your husband died, you took care of her. It was a great kindness." Later on, he even seems to characterize Ruth's willingness to marry him, as opposed to any of the various young men, as a kind of act of loyalty to her dead husband Machlon. Boaz is related to Machlon, there is some sense of loyalty to her dead husband and her choice of Boaz to marry Boaz; and we'll talk about this more later. But the point is, that Boaz is impressed with her kindness, the kindness of Ruth stands out. Who else was not born a Jew, but comes into the people later? What other person is also known for their great kindness. And of course the answer, at least my answer, I wonder if it's yours as well, is Abraham.
Abraham is not born a Jew, he founds the faith, he comes into the people, he creates the people and of course he is known for his kindness. The longest extended story of kindness that we have in the entire Torah is the story of Abraham and Sarah entertaining the guests, taking care of them right after Abraham is in pain after a circumcision. Abraham is known for his kindness, Ruth is known for her kindness, and it's not just the general attributes of kindness and conversion that are points of similarity between Abraham and Ruth, it's the language of the text itself.
Listen to how Boaz described the kindness of Ruth. Huged hugad li kol asher-asit et-chamotech – "It was told to me, all that you've done for your mother-in-law" achare mot ishtech – "after the death of your husband." And now listen to these words, vataazvi avich v'imech – "You left behind your father and your mother", v'eretz moladtech – "and your birth place" vatelchi el-am asher lo yadaat temol shilshom – "and you went to a nation that you did not know yesterday or the day before." Who else left behind their mother and their father? Who else left behind their birth place? Who else went to a land that he didn't know? Of course it's Abraham himself. Lech lecha meartzecha umemoldtecha umibet avicha – "Go forth from your land, from your father's land, from your birthplace", el-haaretz asher arecha – "to the land that you do not know, to the land that land that I will show you."
The language of Ruth is patterned after Abraham, it's almost as if Ruth is a latter day Abraham so to speak. But what do we make of that?
Explaining the Purpose of the Book of RuthNow, perhaps at the simplest level, Ruth is the culmination of a promise made to Abraham. Abraham, at the very beginning of the nation, heard the word of God coming to him and saying, v'hefreti otcha bimod meod – "I will multiply your children greatly," unetaticha legoyim – "I will make them into nations', umelachim mimecha yetzeu – "and kings will come from you." The promise to Abraham is not just that he is going to have a lot of children, but those children will coalesce into a nation, and that nation will be organized politically by virtue of kings; "kings will come from you."
When did that promise of nationhood become fully realized? With the era of kings ushered in by King David and of course, where does King David comes from? That's the Book of Ruth. The Book of Ruth is a kind of culmination of Abraham's promise, it's when the era of kings finally comes into being. But I want to argue that it's not just that the Book of Ruth is a chronological book end to the story of Abraham; it's a conceptual book end too.
Understanding the Spiritual Meaning of Ruth's StoryWe get our mission statement from the Book of Ruth. I want to argue that here is a narrative that wades its way throughout Tanach, it begins at the very beginning, at the birth of our nation with the story of Abraham. That's where our mission statement first becomes defined. Later, it becomes codified at the giving of the Torah at Sinai into a set of rules and stories that embodies these rules; we call these stories and these rules the Torah. But then later on in Tanach, in the Book of Ruth, a kind of culmination of that mission statement is reached; there are echoes of Abraham and Ruth.
Ruth is a kind of culmination of Abraham's story. But if that's true, there is a problem we must grapple with to understand the Book of Ruth, and strangely it's not even a problem in the Book of Ruth; it's a problem in the very beginning story, in the story of Abraham, a basic conundrum that faces anyone who reads the story of Abraham and it is this, "Who was Abraham, and why was he so special? Why did God choose him?" We don't seem to get the answer to that question. The Biblical text itself, the Torah, don't seem to give us the answer to the question.
Now, if you ask your average school child, "Why was it that Abraham was chosen? What was so great about him?" They will give you answers; they will say things like, "Well Abraham was the father of monotheism, he discovered God." And Maimonides says the same thing. Rambam tells the story about how Abraham philosophically came to search out God, and came to the conclusion that there was a master of the universe behind it all; that idolatry was a lie. But the problem is, we don't hear about that in the Torah. Why doesn't the Torah tell us something about that? Other school children will tell you story of the famous story of the midrash.
Abraham once went and smashed the idols in his father's house, and when his father came home and was angry, he pointed to the largest idol and said, "He did it! Not me!" His father said, "That's ridiculous! Everyone knows an idol can't do anything." Abraham says, "If everyone knows an idol can't do anything, then why do you worship them?" Terach reports Abraham to the King, to Nimrod. Nimrod gives him a choice, "enter the fiery furnace or bow to the idols." Abraham chooses the fiery furnace and survives. It's a great story. But it's a story the midrash tells. If that's why Abraham was chosen, why wasn't that story in the Torah?
Most of us begin teaching our kids the story of Abraham with the story of Lech lecha, with God appearing out of the blue to this man, to this unknown man one day and saying, "Go forth from your father's house to this land that I am going to show you and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great; those who bless you, I'll bless, those who curse you, I'll curse them and through you will come blessing to the entire world." But who was he? How could the story of Abraham begins like this with no introduction?
The other great Biblical figures, Noah for example, we hear something about him. Okay! It's only one verse. Noah, Noach ish tzaddik tamim hayah bedorotav – "Noah was a great man in his generation." Et-haElokim hithalech-noach – "He walked with God." Okay, fine! So tell me something like that! Tell me "Abraham was a great man", tell me" he walked with God". Why don't I even get that? How could the Torah be so silent about the man who started it all?
Unless the Torah is not silent.
Studying the Historical Background of the Book Of RuthThe truth is, there are six verses that most of us do not teach our children, that gives us the introduction to Abraham's life. They appear before Lech lecha; at the very end of Parshat Noah. And why do most of us not teach our children these verses? The answer probably is that they are too boring. They tell us a maze of seemingly trivial events. They talk of people that we never hear again, obscure names like Nahor and Milcah and Iscah, and who married who, and who traveled where and Abraham's place among that.
It seems like such a wasted opportunity. If we had six verses to talk about Abraham, we would tell the story of the fiery furnace, we would tell the story of how Abraham discovered God. But these verses tells us nothing like that. Why does the Torah seems to waste time giving us trivial details when it could tell us the essence? Unless, it is telling us the essence.
I would like to suggest to you that hidden in these six verses lies a secret story, a narrative that describes Abraham's greatness and why God took a chance on him. I want to explore these verses with you because when we do, we will begin to understand Abraham's mission, we will begin to understand how the Torah at Sinai codifies that mission and how centuries later, a woman named Ruth, saved that mission from almost certain failure.
The Power of the TowerOkay. So why was Abraham chosen? We've got six verses here that introduce us to Abraham, maybe the answer lies here. But if you look at these verses, these verses seems to be the most trivial, travelogue that you could imagine. Who married who, who travelled where, who died; all of these people that we never hear from again. Here is the story.
V'eleh toldot Terach – Terach holid et-Avram et-Nachor v'et-Haran; v'Haran holid et-Lot – "These are the generations of Terah. Terah gave birth to Abram, and Nahor and Haran, and Haran gave birth to Lot. Then, vayamat Haran al-pnei Terach aviv beretz moladto – "Haran dies in the lifetime of his father in Ur Kasdim". Okay, so after this story of untimely death, we now have perhaps one of the most confusing verses in the entire Book of Genesis. Vayikach Avram v'Nachor lahem nashim– "Abram and Nahor they take wives".
Who do they marry? Shem eshet-Avram Sarai – "Abram marries Sarai." Who does Nahor marry? Nahor marries Milcah, V'shem eshet-Nachor Milkah bat-Haran avi-Milkah vaavi Yiskah – "Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah." It's like so confusing. Who was Milcah and Iscah and all these people, and why do I even care about them? And then finally, we get strange invasion of Sarai's privacy, Vathi Sarai akarah: ein lah valed – "Sarai, she is barren, she can't have a child." Why do I have to hear about this now? I mean I don't know anything about her and the first thing you're telling me is that she is infertile? How does this contribute to the story? Is there even a story here at all?
And now, we are off on a journey. Vayikach terach et-Avram beno -"And now Terah takes Abram and Lot and Sarai, apparently leaves Nahor behind and they leave Ur Kasdim, and they are heading to Canaan". They get as far as Charan, lalechet artzah canaan- "they end up settling there", then Terah dies. He's two hundred and five years old when he dies; end of story. Did you hear anything about why Abram should be chosen here? Anything? If you look carefully, there is a little something that maybe is a clue. And that little something takes place in that confusing verse. That confusing verse, the one about Abram and Nahor marrying these women with the strange names that takes place right after Haran died. Haran died, al-pnei Terach aviv - "in the lifetime of his father." So Haran died young.
Now immediately after that, Abram and Nahor, the remaining children, the brothers of the deceased, they take wives. Who do they marry? Off hand, we don't know who Abram married, we just know that she was a girl by the name of Sarai, but we know who Nahor married. Nahor married a girl by the name of Milcah, and we know who she was, she was bat-Haran, she was "the daughter of Haran." The daughter of Haran. Haran was the child who died. Nahor is marrying his niece, the child of his deceased brother. Now why would he do that?
Later on in the Torah, there is a law like this, yibum, we have the law called Levirate marriage. The idea of yibum is that when a brother dies young, when he dies childless, there is a mitzvah upon the brother to marry the widow of the deceased and have children, v'lo yimcha shmo misrael– "so that the deceased name is not blotted out from among Israel", so that they can perpetuate his name. It sounds like Nahor is engaging the yibum like kind of act. I mean, Haran has just died; he's died young. Well it's true, Haran does have a child; Lot, but presumably he doesn't have as many children as you might otherwise would think he would have, and right after he dies, here comes Nahor and then marry someone from his family; he marries his daughter.
Now in real yibum, he would marry a widow, in real yibum, there would be no children, but it sounds like yibum, it has that sort of quality to it. Indeed, Nachmanides, the Ramban, suggests that before the Torah was given, in this era which Abram lived, even though the law of yibum wasn't given, the idea of yibum was still around. People understood that idea and it seems like Nahor is engaged is a proto yibum kind of act. Intriguingly by the way, the Rabbis tell us that this girl who Abrams marry, Sarai, actually has another name too; Iscah. Remember who Iscah is, go back to that strange verse. Abram marry Sarai, Nahor married Milcah, Miclah is the daughter of Haran, Haran is the father of Milcah, and Milcah had a sister Iscah. Haran is the father of both Milcah and Iscah. What the Sages are telling us is Abram is doing the same thing as Nahor is doing, they are both marrying children of their deceased brother.
Rashi explains to us that the word Iscah comes from the language nesichah– princess. The name Sarai also means princess; it actually means "my princess". Seems to be that the Sages are saying yes, Sarai and Iscah are the same person, perhaps even Sarai terms was Abrams term of endearment for Iscah ; Iscah "the princess", Sarai, "she is my princess" . God later on says, "No, no, no. I will change her name, she is the princess of the world." But in any case, both Abram and Nahor are engaged in this yibum like act. And now the question is, "So what?" So you're telling me that's a big enough deal to explain the foundation of the entire Torah? Why Abram is chosen is because of what he did a mitzvah? So like why is that mitzvah so wonderful? Maybe if you had told me that Sarai lit candles on Shabbat that would be why they were chosen? If you told me Abram waved a lulav, so okay, he did a mitzvah, wonderful. Why is that so grand? But grand it is indeed, because in order to understand the significance of this particular mitzvah you have to look at context.
I want to suggest to you that this Abraham story has different layers of context; you can keep on looking farther and farther out, and the context gets richer and richer. But the first, the inner most orbit, is the story that takes place right before this, and it's the story of the Tower of Babel. The Abram and Nahor story is little story; a story about a family. The story about the Tower of Babel, is a story about the large stage of world history; it's the story of the fragmentation of civilization, of one world civilization with a common culture and a common language becoming fragmented into different families and nations. The story of the Tower is the story that immediately proceeds the Abraham's story, and it makes you wonder, is it possible to understand the Abraham's story without understanding the headlines of the day as it were. The story of Abraham takes place in the shadow of the Tower, and in order to understand it, perhaps we really need to understand what was going on in that story of the Tower. The Torah seems to tell us as much with a subtle but eerie language parallel.
When Abram and Terah and Sarai set off on their quest to Canaan, a land that we know will be the Promised Land, even if they do not yet know that, they end up halting that quest; they end up settling in in Charan, not just staying in Charan for a while, but settling in Charan, vayeshvu sham, as if to say that they have abandoned that quest, that quest for the Promised Land. How many times do you think the word vayeshvu sham - "and they settled there", appears in the five books of Moses? It seems to be one of these phrases that always appears dozens of times, but it doesn't. It appears twice. This is the second time that it ever appears, there is only one other time that it appears; in the story of the Tower of Babel. Seemingly at this one point, at the point when they stop going to Canaan and gets stuck in Charan, there is an echo of the tower. It's as if the Torah is saying that there is a question mark here, "Is Abram a tower builder or is he not a tower builder?" This is the very last thing that happens before God says lech lecha – "Keep on going on the quest." In order to really understand this apparently insignificant little mitzvah of yibum that Abram undertakes, we need to understand the long shadow that the story of the Tower casts upon Abram's life. Let's turn to that now.
The story of the Tower of Babel is a puzzling story because it's not clear what these people did that was so terrible. They built the tower? Did they worship the tower? Were they trying to rebel against God? It doesn't actually say any of that in the text. They were building the tower, God for some strange reasons decides that he doesn't like it. What was wrong with this tower? Are there any indications from the text of the Torah itself as to what was wrong with the tower?
Well, one of the first thing you notice when you look at God's expression of displeasure with the tower, you actually find that God doesn't criticize them for doing anything wrong at all; it's more of what might happen, than what is happening. Hen am echad v'safah achat lechulam – "Here it is, one people with one language", v'zeh hachilam laasot – "and this they've began to do?" v'atah lo-yibatzer mehem kol asher yazmu laasot – "And now nothing that they plot to do from here on in will be withheld from them; it's just going to snowball." God seems to be concerned about the future more than now. What process has started whose eventual outcome is dangerous? It's a process interestingly, that has to do with the focus on name building of all things. So what was the reason for building the tower? Was there any utility to the tower? Was it an apartment building? People didn't live there, didn't work there, it was just a monument; a monument to themselves.
V'naaseh-lanu shem, they said – "Let's build ourselves a name". Let's think about this a little bit more carefully. The imperative to make a name, to build a name, comes from the consciousness of death. An individual becomes concern about their name when they understand that they are going to die. Yibum is all about perpetuating the name of someone who has died, giving them legacy so they continue in the world. Interestingly, this was the focus of the tower builders, it's just, it wasn't individual death that they were concerned about; it was communal death. The reason why they build the tower they say, is Naaseh-lanu shem – "Let us make a name for ourselves", pen-nafutz – "lest we scatter." What death is to the individual; scattering is to the community; it's the end of the line. How are we going to confront the end of the line for us? We'll build a monument to ourselves; that will solve everything. So what then was the folly of the tower builders? They fell victim perhaps to a great irony; the irony of building a name is that you can't build it by focusing on it. Building a name is a by-product of doing worthwhile things, good things for others, taking care of others; it's not something that happens by focusing on name building. Indeed, when you focus overtly on building your own name, on building monuments to yourself, your life is essentially empty; there is nothing there. Life as a tower builder is devoid of meaning; it's a monument to nothing.
In life, we have two great lists; one of them is our resume, the other is our gravestone. Which matters more? What does it say on your resume? It talks about your power, what you can do. What does it say on your gravestone? – "Beloved Father. Beloved Husband. Beloved Brother." It's how you took care of those that mattered in your life. Ultimately, life is about how you harness your power to take care of those that matter. What if power becomes an end in and of itself? Then, you are a tower builder. Naaseh-lanu shem – "Let us make a name for ourselves." If you succumb to the illusion that your resume, your power is your name, you've just gotten locked into a self-referential cycle. Your power, your means to achieve your goals have become your goal and you have no name whatsoever. God looks at the tower and says, "Where is this going? It's just going to snow ball." The overt focus on your own name, we have a word for that, it is narcissism. The tower was the beginning of that all.
Having understood the shadow that the tower casts, let us turn our gaze now back towards Abraham. He is the man who emerges in the wake of the tower building catastrophe. He is the one who found the Jewish people who descendants accepts the Torah, and who's echoes emerges centuries later in the Book of Ruth. Let's go back to his story.
In the Name of the BrotherLet's look one more time at the story of Abram and Nahor. There are three brothers living together. One of them dies; he dies young, in the lifetime of his father. Immediately following his death, vayikach Avram v'Nachor lahem nashim – the two surviving brother, Abram and Nahor, jumped into action, marrying the daughters of the deceased, seemingly, in an act of Proto-yibum. What is the purpose of yibum according to the Torah? As Sefer Dvarim outlines it, v'lo yimcha shmo misrael– "that his name, not be blotted out." It's an attempt to perpetuate legacy, it's exactly what the Tower was about with just one little difference that makes a huge impact; it's not about building your own name, it's about building up the name of your brother.
When I care about making myself breakfast in bed every morning, we call that narcissistic. When I make breakfast in bed for my wife, we call that love. If my brother has died, died before his time, and the tragedy is compounded by him not having children, there is no one who can carry on his name, who can carry on his legacy forward in the world; there is an act of supreme kindness that I can undertake. Who us the most vulnerable person in the world? The most vulnerable person is a dead person. Dead people still have interests, but they can't look after them because they are no longer alive. Who is the closest person in the world to you? Your brother. What's the most precious personal gift you could ever give to anyone? It would be the gift of a child; sharing your own personal biological legacy.
When the most vulnerable person is the person most closet to you in the whole world, your brother, and you share the most precious personal gift in the world, your own legacy with your brother, it's the greatest act of chesed, of kindness, imaginable. It's the perfect counterpart to the tower. In the largest community imaginable, the world itself united to build the Tower, it was a narcissistic attempt to promote their own name. Now, in the very next story, the smallest community imaginable, Abram and Sarai, Nahor and Milcah; man and woman, man and woman, unite and share what by right would be their own, the child that would come from them with their dead brother, and give him a lasting name, and that we call love. And now let's read as the story continues.
The next verse, vathi Sarai akarah: ein lah valed – "But Sarai was infertile, she could not have a child". We now understand what that verse is doing there. It's saying whereas Nahor and Milcah, whereas they may have succeeded in having a child, Abram and Sarai could not. And therefore, although it was a good try Abram, all of your best intentions did not yield any fruit in the real practical world. You have not succeeded in building a name for your brother, in helping to perpetuate his legacy. And then, Abram goes on a journey, a journey with his father, with Sarai, they leave all the way to Canaan to what we know would become the Promised Land.
I want to suggest that there's two journey's here; one perhaps a metaphor for the other. There is an external journey, the journey to the Promised Land, but it mirrors an internal journey; the journey of love, the journey to help your brother. It's a quest that will animate Abram's life. Will he ever fulfill the dream to help carry on his brother's legacy? They set out on this quest to the land of Canaan but then something ominous happens. They get as far as Charan and they stopped. They just don't stop overnight, vayeshvu sham – "they settled there". "They settled there" means, that the quest is gone. They've abandoned the quest. They are in Charan now, this is where they set up shop. Canaan is just a distant memory. Is there something ominous happening here? Remember, this is the second time vayeshvu sham appears, "and they settled there." Where is the first vayeshvu sham? It's the Tower, when the tower builders settled there. We are hearing echoes of the Tower in Abrams' story, as if to say that the question that faces Abram now somehow is, "will he become a tower builder? Will he abandon the quest for Canaan and with it, the quest to help his brother?"
What challenge faces a man when he tries to do something altruistic? He married the orphan daughter of his brother, try to take care of her, try to have a child that could keep his brother's name alive, but it wouldn't work, she can't have children. And years go by and she still can't have children, and still more years go by. What challenge, what question faces you now? If you're Abram, the question that dances around in your mind is, "it's all very nice to try to have a child to help my brother, but at a certain point, a man has to worry about his own legacy right?" A man has to worry about his own legacy- that's tower builder language. Will he stay with Sarai? Maybe you'll abandon the orphan daughter of your brother. Maybe it's time to worry about your own legacy. And at that moment, God intervenes. Vayomer Hashem el-Avram – "And God appeared to Abram and said, no, no, no", lech lecha – "I like the quest, I like the journey. Keep on going to Canaan". El-haaretz asher arecha – "to the land that you were starting to go to, the land that I am going to show you. The place where you will build a nation." V'e'escha legoy gadol – "I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you," vaagedlah shemecha – "I will make your name great." I will make your name great – echoes of the Tower once more. The story of the Tower creates both the necessity for Abram, and the challenge - the reason why he could fail.
First the necessity for Abram. God, in creating mankind, has sought out a relationship with all of mankind. It was possible in the days of Adam, it was possible in the days of Noah. But after the Tower, it was no longer possible. Humanity had fragmented into different peoples with different cultures and different languages and at that point, God needed to take a fragment; one family, and begin to develop a relationship with them and to work outwards to select a person that could build a family dedicated to spreading God's name in the world. But if the Tower creates the need for an Abraham, it also creates the reason why an Abraham might fail, because what did the Tower show? It showed the propensity of men to become narcissistically self-involved in the perpetuation of their own private legacy.
What if you choose someone and you said,"you guys are special. You guys are going to spread my name." And eventually, that family grows, and they said to themselves, "we're special, look at us. God loves us more. It's all about us; it's about me", then the plan fails. The family has given in to the illusion of the tower builders. They have exchanged the mission to bring God's name into the world with the aggrandizement of their own name. So with that danger, if you are in God's position, who are you going to choose? You are going to bet on someone with the beginnings of a track record.
Abram had defined a dream, a dream to dedicate his own creative ability to have a child to the legacy of someone else. And God said, "Maybe you can be the one to perpetuate my legacy in the world. I like the quest. Keep on going." Abram begins to walk the land, and as he does, he built altars, altars of stone, altars to God; little Towers. A tower builder, infatuated with their own creativity, build huge towers out of brick monuments to themselves. These altars out of stone, out of God made material, would be altars to God. And as Abram builds his second altar, vayikra beshem Hashem – "he calls out in the name of God." It's about the name of God, not my private name. As Abram build these altars, where does he live? Bayit ohelo– "he lives in a tent." His habitation is temporary; the altars for God, they are the things that are forever.
We've began to progress in understanding the Abram's prologue, but in order to truly see it's significance, we need to open up the zoom lens still further, because if we look carefully, farther back in Biblical history, we will realize that the story I've just told you, the story of Terah and his three children, has actually happened before. Everything we've seen thus far is an echo of another story; a story that happened ten generations before this.
Generations EarlierSo when I said that we've heard this all before, that the Abram and Nahor story resonates with another story that took place ten generations earlier, the language, the ideas, even the sounds of the word, it's as if the Torah is saying, "this earlier story somehow provides a template for the Abram and Nahor story". What is that earlier story? Let me give you some of the clues. Remember how the Abram story begins with a man and three children? The man is Terah, and the three children are Abram, Nahor and Haran. The other story I am thinking about ten generations earlier also begins with a father and three children. Remember how tragedy strikes one of the children in Abram's story? Haran dies young in the presence, in the face of his father? In that other story, tragedy strikes one of the children too. That tragedy also takes place in the face or in the presence of the father.
Remember how right after that tragedy happens in the Abram's story, the two remaining children jump into action, to try to rectify the damage somehow? That happens too in the earlier story. And remember how in order to rectify the damage, Abram and Nahor took wives, vayikach Avram v'Nachor lahem nashim? That language, vayikach, is exactly the same language that describes how the two children ten generations earlier tried to rectify the damage. Not only that, remember how the Abram and Nahor story ends with the death of Terah; the death of the grandfather? That other story ten generations earlier also ends with the death of progenitor and those three sons. And one last thing, remember how the family is headed somewhere in Abram's story? Where are they headed? The land of Canaan. Well you know where the land of Canaan gets its name. It gets its name from a person, a person who lived in that other story ten generations earlier. What is that other story? It's the story of Noah and the Vineyard. The story of takes place in Genesis chapter 9. It's the story immediately preceding the Tower of Babel.
The grandfather, his name is Noah. The children, Shem, Ham and Japheth. These are the people who leave the Ark after the great flood. But tragedy happens to one of these three children. In the Abram story, Haran dies; in the Noah story, Ham doesn't die, but his legacy is destroyed. He and his child, a child by the name of Canaan, are cursed by Noah, cursed to become servants to the other brothers, Shem and Japheth because of something that happens in the presence of father.
Noah becomes drunk after the flood, Ham invades his private chambers and sees his nakedness. When Noah wakes up from his drunken sleep, he realizes what happened and he curses Ham's child, with this curse of slavery. Just as this tragedy was unfolding, the two other brothers had acted. Vayikach shem vayefet et-hasimlah – "they had taken a cloak", vayasimu al-shechem shneihem – "and placed it on their shoulders", vayichlu achoranit– "and they walked backwards", vayechsu et ervat avihem – "they covered the nakedness of their father, they restored his dignity." The story ends with the death of Noah, just like the later story ends with the death of Terah. The story seems so similar, it's easy to overlook the one glaring way in which they differ.
If you look at the redemptive act right at the center of the story, of the two children who tried to rectify the situation, to somehow make it better; in so many ways that act is similar. It's an act of two children, it's an act signified by vayikach. But, ask yourself these questions, "Who is the act of these two children designed to help?" Abram and Nahor when they took wives, they were helping to preserve the legacy of their dead brother Haran. They were helping their brother. Who were Shem and Japheth helping? They were helping their father. And what of their brother, their brother's whose name is cursed in this story, whose legacy is destroyed; he gets no help at all. Father is covered by a cloak, meanwhile the progeny of Ham is cursed. His legacy withers away. There is a remarkable language pattern in the text that actually makes this clear.
Look at the verse that describes the act of Shem and Japheth. If you read it over and over again, there are letter patterns that appear over and over again in the words. Can you pick them out? Listen carefully. Vayikach shem vayefet et-hasimlah vayasimu al-shechem shneihem… Vayikach shem vayefet et-hasimlah vayasimu al-shechem shneihem… shem, simlah, vayasimu, shechem, shneihem… shem, simlah, vayasimu, shechem, shneihem, you hear it over and over again, it's shin-mem, shin-mem, shin-mem. What does that spells? It spells "Name". But if you look carefully at this letter pattern, it's not just that shem appears over and over again; there is a pattern in how the shin-mem occurrence appears. Do you see the pattern? What if I arrange the texts like this? Now do you see it? Or how about like this? Do you see it now? Or how about like this? Do you see it now?
The first time appears, shin and mem together, the next time it appears, shin and mem together. But, there is a small letter, a yud, interpolating itself between the shin and the mem. And then there is a larger letter, a chaf, between the shin and the mem. Then there is three whole letters, nun, yud, and hay between the shin and mem. What is happening to the shin and mem? What is happening to the shem? It's slowly being torn apart. There's a shem that's fraying, that's fragmenting in this story. Who is shem? It's the name of Ham.
Shem and Japheth act, they act to preserve the dignity of their father. But even as they act, there was nothing they can or will do to help their brother Ham. Even as they act in the shame of Ham that's silently being destroyed, his legacy is being destroyed; his child and all children after him are being cursed to be slaves. He is not dead like Haran is, but he is as good as dead. He is being destroyed by the curse of his father Noah. The brothers Shem and Japheth helped, they helped father; but the brother whose name is cursed for generations, there is nothing they can or will do. His legacy is quietly being destroyed.
And now, fast forward ten generations later. Ten generations later we meet Abram and his attempt with Nahor to rescue the name of their brother. Ham was as good as dead ten generations later, Haran is in fact dead. But despite that, Abram and Nahor undertakes the quest to revive his faith in Shem. And now, let's take a look at the words. Do you see any shin-mem patterns here?
Vayikach Avram v'Nachor lahem nashim shem eshet-Avram Sarai v'shem eshet-Nachor Milkah – "Abram and Nahor has taken wives. The name of one Sarai, the name of the other Milcah." Do you see the pattern? Do you see it now? Shin and mem with two letters in between. Shin and mem with a yud in between, Shin and mem together, shin and mem together. What is happening? A name is being stitched back together. Abram and Nahor are helping their brother reviving his threatened shem, allowing it to flourish once more. Ten generations before Abram and Nahor, there was Shem and Japheth. What about ten generations before that? Do we find something similar?
Ten generations before Shem and Japheth we arrive at Adam and Chavah, Adam and Eve themselves, and their children. Was there a threatened name in that story? Someone who dies before their time? There surely was. There was blood crying out from the ground, desperate to be heard, but a brother stands by and does nothing. It's the story of Cain and Abel.
Cain kills Abel, but that's not his greatest evil. No one ever killed anybody before. Cain was angry, he hit him; Abel died. But the great evil of Cain comes just a moment later when God says, Ei hevel achich– "where has Abel gone?" to which Cain responds, Hashomer achi anochi? – "Am I my brother's keeper?" That was the wrong answer. "You don't know where your brother is? You don't know what happen to him? You see him laying motionless in a pool of blood on the floor. You should be screaming "what can I do? How can I help? What can be done?" Instead, you're apathetic, you don't care. You are not sure if you are your brother's keeper. All of the children that would have come from Abel, that's is all gone! You didn't just kill one man, you killed a line of humanity that would have gone for generations. What would be with the name of your brother?" Did anyone act to save the threatened legacy of Hevel? Cain didn't act; but someone did. It was Adam and Chavah, Adam and Eve themselves. Because after the death of Abel, Adam and Eve have a third child, his name is Seth. Ki shat-li Elokim zera acher – tachat hevel ki harogo kain – "Because God has established other seeds for me, other children for me in place of Abel, because Cain had killed him." Seth is the spiritual continuance of Abel, he keeps Abel's name alive throughout the generations. It's the very first yibum like act in the Torah, but it's an act not undertaken by brother, but undertaken by parents, because a brother wouldn't act. Do you see the pattern here?
In the very first generation of mankind, tragedy strikes one brother, another brother stands silently by, so parents act to help the threatened child. Ten generations later, tragedy strikes another child, this time the brothers are not silent, they do act, but they act to help parent, they do not act to help brother. Parents help child, or child helps parents, but brothers never help brothers until another ten generations go by and we meet Terah and his three sons, and this time, brothers help brothers. And that is the birth of the people of Israel; that's the mission statement. Your brother is in need, you help him. It seems impossible? You find a way. Your obligation is to parents; yes. Your parent's obligation is to you; yes. But your obligation is also toward brother. There is something about that relationship between brothers; you love them, or perhaps rivalry seeps into the relationship, but the rivalry must be conquered. At the end of the day, when your brother is in need, he is your brother, and you must be there for him. Ah, but now of course, there is one last question I am need to ask.
Ever ten generations, there is an iteration of this cycle, it happens with Adam and Eve. Ten generations after Cain and Abel, meet Shem and Japheth, ten generations after them, we meet Abram and Nahor, each is a yibum like act, each a somewhat more perfected version of the previous one; what do we find ten generations later? Well, it's time to do a little counting, starting with Abram. Abram gives birth to Isaac; that's generation number one, who gives birth to Jacob; that's two, who gives birth to Judah; that's three, who gives birth to Peretz; four, Hezron, Ram, Amminadab; five, six and seven, Anminadad gives birth to Nahshon; that's eight, Nahshon to Salmon; that's nine, and Salmon gives birth to Boaz; that's generation ten.
Brotherly LoveSo it turns out that ten generations after the story of Abraham, we meet another Yibum like story. This time, it's the Book of Ruth. This time, the man and his sons are Elimelech, Machlon and Kilyon. Tragedy strikes! Elimelech dies. The two remaining sons, Machlon and Kilyon, spring into action, just as Abram and Nahor did, and they take wives just as Abram and Nahor did. But the significance of them taking lives, oh that was terribly different. The Book of Ruth tells us that Elimelech left the land of Israel for the fields of Moab in times of famine. The midrash fills out the picture telling us that Elimelech was a great man in his generation; he was wealthy and people looked to him for help, for food, during times of famine. But he fled! He left the country with his children and with his wife, abandoning people in their times of trouble. If the story we've been hearing every ten generations is the story of building kindness, of brothers taking care of brothers, here, brothers are not taking care of brothers; they are abandoning them. Elimelech leaves his countrymen, the kindness that we would expect to reach its apex ten generations later is dying. This dying of kindness begins to reflect itself in physical death.
Elimelech has two children, Machlon and Kilyon. We talked about their strange names; Machlon – Sickness, Kilyon – Destruction. These two children will eventually die, as their names seem to suggest. But before do, they engaged in an act that is also a betrayal of kindness. They spring into action in the wake of the tragedy of the death of Elimelech and they take wives, seemingly just as Abram and Nahor did, except, the meaning of their taking wives is the exact opposite of Abram's and Nahor's meaning. In taking wives, who are they marrying? They are marrying Moabites women. Their children will no longer be part of the children of the people of Israel, they are destroying the legacy of their father; not even passively like Cain did, but actively by taking the steps to destroy it. The ten generations cycle is in shambles. Externally, everything is the same.
There is three men, there is a tragedy, one dies, the two remaining spring into action, they take wives; externally, everything is the same, but internally, it's all the reverse. The soul of this story is the destruction of kindness within a family. Soon, Machlon and Kilyon themselves die. And now, the question that faces all of the survivors is, "Will this be all? Will there be no legacy for Elimelech and Machlon and Kilyon who've died in the fields of Moab without surviving children?" This point is the lowest of the low; it wasn't supposed to happen this way. Every ten generations, things were getting better. Cain was apathetic. Ten generations later, Shem and Japheth acted; they tried to help. Ten generations after that, Abram and Nahor helped brothers, but ten generations later it's a disaster; Elimelech abandons the needs of his countrymen, and his children abandoned his needs, and a family of leaders is headed for oblivion. Let's continue with the story.
Naomi, the widow of Elimelech, has a heart-to-heart talk with her daughters-in-law. She tells them that if they had any thought of trying to perform some sort of Yibum like act, trying somehow to preserve the legacy of their husbands, by marrying a brother from the family, they can put that thought to rest; there is no brother for Machlon and Kilyon. Naomi said, "I don't have any other children, there is no other children that you can marry. Even if I have children now, by the time they got old enough, you would be too old to marry them. Give up the quest, it's not going to happen." Orpah gives up. Ruth embarks on the unlikely quest, just like Abram did before.
One son Abram, along with his father Terah, leaving another son, another brother Nahor behind, heads off to Canaan. That quest for Canaan is emblematic, as we suggested before, of another inner quest, a quest to perpetuate the legacy of his dead brother Haran. That quest seems impossible. Sarai can't have children, there is only the dimness of hopes of making that quest come alive as they head off to Canaan. And now, centuries later in the Book of Ruth, the same thing is happening, except that the lead actors are females instead of males. Tragedy strikes, and then, there is a mother-in-law, Naomi, left with two daughter in laws; Ruth and Orpah. One of them, Orpah, stays behind. Ruth, travels with her mother-in-law on a quest again to Canaan. But that quest is also emblematic of another quest; a quest to keep the dead legacy of her husband Machlon alive. There is only the dimness of chances of making that happen, because there is no children in the picture, Naomi does not have other children that Ruth could marry. What will happen to that quest? It's the story of Abram and Terah one more time again.
And yes, do you remember how in the Abram story when they get stuck in Charan, vayeshvu sham – "and they settled there", the shadow of the tower hang over the story of Abram. There is a vayeshvu sham in the story of Machlon and Kilyon too. When these people get stuck in Moab, they begin as sojourners. They come legur- "to stay a while", but they ended up staying a long while; vayeshvu sham – "they end up settling there". The echoes of the tower hovers over the story too.
What is the tower about? It's about caring about your own private legacy, disregarding the legacy of those who loved you, of those who you love; that's the story of Machlon and Kilyon too. And just as the tower crumbled, Machlon and Kilyon have withered away was well. The only hope for the preservation of this family legacy, lies with someone from outside the family, indeed, it was someone from outside the nation; it lies with Ruth, the woman who embarks on this impossible quest.
Ruth comes back with her mother in law to the land of Israel, and there, almost miraculously, she ends up collecting grains in the fields of someone who happens to be a relative of her dead husband Machlon; it is name is Boaz. Later on, Boaz will speak of Elimelech, Machlon's father as achinu Elimelech – "our brother Elimelech". They're cousins, children of brothers; it's the theme of brothers once more. The possibility of Yibum looms.
Boaz, the owner of the field, the relative, begins to understand who Ruth is. He is impressed with her, impressed with her kindness, with her loyalty to her mother-in-law, and to her dead husband. He treats her nicely, he blesses her. Huged hugad li, he said – " It was told to me everything you've done to your mother in law after your husband died; how you left your father and your mother behind, how you came to a nation you didn't know yesterday or the day before. Let God rewards you for your action", he says, "the God of Israel", – "let Him shelter you beneath his wings." It's a nice poetic blessing; but it doesn't do anything for Ruth. He is not prepared to marry her; to carry on the name of Machlon. Ruth is from Moab, and whatever question many surround the permissibility of marrying her.
Machlon and Kilyon and Elimelch didn't seem to be terribly popular in Bet Lehem. They were the ones who left in times of trouble. Boaz recognizes the kindness of Ruth, but does not act on his own to further the shame, the name, the legacy of these deceased cousins of his, who left their people in times of trouble. Eventually, Ruth confronts him, and when she does, she brings Boaz's own words back to haunt him. She comes to him in the middle of the night and makes her case to him. "Marry me", she says, "it's not just about me, it is about your brother; my dead husband."
Anochi Rut amatecha, she tells him, "I am Ruth your maidservant. Ufarasta chenafecha al-amatcha– "Spread your wings over your maidservant", "ki goel atah – "because you are a redeemer." "Spread your wings over me", we've heard that language before. Boaz had used that kind of metaphor, 'that God shelters you beneath his wings'. "You told me before that you thought I was worthy of having God spread his wings over me. You think that God should spread his wings over me, then maybe you should too. It's not enough to wish that God act with kindness, you must act with kindness too. You can allow this family of Elimelech, Machlon and Kilyon, to have some continuity; not to meet its final end." Ruth, from outside the family, outside the nation, demands kindness from within it. And Boaz responds. Boaz implicitly accepts her demand and sends her back to her mother in law with a strange sign; a cloth, filled with six seeds of barley.
Havi hamitpachat asher-alaich he says – "bring me that cloth that you are wearing," he says, v'echazi bah – "grab hold of it; and she grabs hold of it, and he puts six barley seed in it." Vayaset aleiha – "and he placed it on her." What a strange word, vayaset aleiha. The word is too strong, it doesn't means, "he placed it upon her", it means, "He established it upon her". "He established it upon her"? We've heard that word before; it's Shet. It's the very first Yibum child in the history of the Torah. Then what's Boaz doing? He is telling her to grab the cloth, the cloth that he is giving her, to walk back towards her mother-in-law. We've heard that before too; Shem and Japheth grabbing a cloth and walking towards their parent. And now it's happening one more time. He will give her a cloth, a cloth with seeds in it to walk back towards her parent. This time, the cloth is not just to help father; the cloth has seeds. There is a message here. There will be the birth of new life, a legacy will be carried on; there will be a child. The child of Boaz and Ruth is Obed. Obed gives birth to Yishai, and Yishai gives birth to David; this is the birth of Kings within the Jewish people.
This story of Ruth is a beautiful story, a story of how a woman from outside of the family helped bring kindness, a kind of redemption, to the family of Elimelech, and through that, kings came to the people of Israel. But there is another level of redemption going on in this story too, a more subtle level; because where does Ruth come from? She comes from Moab. But where does Moab comes from? Moab the nation came from Moab the man. Moab the man, was a child of Lot, and Lot was a child of Haran; Abram's dead brother. Yes, it all finally comes full circle now. Centuries before, Abram had acted selflessly to perpetuate the name of his dead brother, Haran. And now, Haran's child would do the same for Abram's family when it found itself in crisis. Centuries later, when kindness had died within Abram's family, within the line that was inextricably moving towards kingship, when there was no more hope, when Elimelech family had reached a dead end, someone, a child of Haran, would not give up, would selflessly dedicate herself to the needs of Abram's family. Ruth, would breathe new life back into that family; Haran's child would save Abram's children to bring about kingship within Abram's people.
In the end, this is the culmination of a story, a story that begins with Cain and Abel, progresses to Shem and Japheth, continues with the story of Abram, and culminates with kingship for the nation of Abram. And in this culminating moment, the family of Terah is finally complete. It's not really true that the father of the Jewish people is Abram, the father of the Jewish people is Terah; the whole family are the ancestors of the Jewish people. The fathers of the Jewish people, Issac and Jacob, they come from Abram. But where did the mothers come from? They come from Nahor. Nahor, the other brother who acted selflessly to keep Haran's name alive. He married Milcah, their child is Bethuel, Bethuel's child is Rebecca, whose grandchildren are Rachel and Leah. Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, these are the mothers of the Jewish people; they all come from Nahor. And finally, centuries later, Haran's child Ruth from Moab, enters the family. And when all three strands of the family have come together, when the kindness of two great men, Abram and Nahor, looking out for their brother, is repaid by the brother for whom they looked after, when each has cared and sacrificed to build the name of the other, it is then that kings can come into this people.
The story of Ruth does have a plot, it's not just about a day in the life of Bet Lehem; it's about a quest, Ruth's quest to perpetuate a name. At the end of the day, the holiday of Shavout tells us about our mission statement. On this holiday, we read the Ten Commandment, an embodiment of this mission statement in the realm of law. But we also read the Book of Ruth, an embodiment of the mission statement not in law, but in a story. The mission tells us one thing for sure; if all we do as Jews is reassure ourselves about how special we are, about how much we think God loves us, we would have really just become later day tower builders. Our mission demands a selflessness, a focus on perpetuating the names of others whether God or people, even at the expense, if necessary, of our own legacy. It is why Abraham is mattered, it's why Ruth mattered, and it's why each one of us in our own lives can still matter today.
Hey, it's Rabbi David Forhman here again. If you enjoyed this last video, please consider partnering with us in helping to bring these videos around the world. You can do that by subscribing to Aleph Beta and joining our effort.